Shanghai (AFP) - Cycling's Tour de France will stage a Shanghai criterium featuring top riders this year as it bids to attract a following in China, organisers said on Thursday.
An "Etape China" (China Stage) for thousands of enthusiasts will be held in Changsha in September, before the criterium for elite riders in Shanghai on October 29.
"There is growing interest in cycling in China. We want to help develop the sport," Jean-Etienne Amaury, president of Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), organiser of the Tour of France, told AFP.
"If there are Chinese teams, there will also be interest from Chinese sponsors," he added.
A 60-strong peloton, including top international cyclists and leading Chinese riders, will contest the multi-lap Shanghai race over a three-kilometre (two-mile) course taking in city landmarks.
Since 2013, a similar event has been held every year in Japan, with three-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome among the riders taking part.
Despite its exalted status in cycling, the Tour de France doesn't have a strong following in China, where bikes are still mainly considered as a means of transport.
Only one Chinese cyclist, Cheng Ji, has ever finished the race. He came last, in 164th place, in 2014.
However, cycling has shown signs of growing popularity in China as leisure riders take to the roads.
Amaury hopes to attract the attention of major companies like Alibaba and Wanda, who have sports sponsorship deals with the International Olympic Committee and FIFA respectively.
The Shanghai race will try to "recreate the atmosphere of the Tour at the end of the world", said Amaury, adding that he hoped it would become an annual event.
ASO tried to organise a race in Shanghai last year, but encountered opposition from police in the Pudong business district, Amaury said.
China is not used to having large gatherings of people in the heart of cities as they raise police concerns over public order.
However, Chinese authorities were present late on Wednesday at a ceremony to launch the Shanghai criterium, and Amaury is said he is optimistic about obtaining permits for the race.